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A God Just Like Us

The following is a transcript of Episode 139 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kertzer and we’re recording on Thursday, May 11th, 2023. 

So last year around this time we did a show on Shavuot with Rabbi Zohar Atkins and we talked about that big elusive idea known in our tradition as revelation, God’s decision to reveal some aspect of God’s self at Mount Sinai, the ensuing giving of the Torah to the people Israel. And then what might have been a bigger deal, the Jewish people’s continued receiving of the Torah from then and ever since. 

Shavuot is such a wacky holiday. It starts so clearly in the Torah as an agricultural harvest festival, but the Jewish people looked at that and they’re like, nah, we could go bigger than that. And in so doing, we also might be able to take that single greatest moment in Jewish theological history and make sure it actually has a day on the calendar to honor it. 

In that conversation a year ago, Zohar defined Revelation by saying that, “Revelation initiates a conversation between God and the Jewish people.” That word conversation is doing a lot of work. So we spoke then about the power gap between God and the Jewish people. 

Today I want to think about that same conversation but a little bit differently about what it means for us, the Jewish people, to be those that lead that conversation and what language we use to conduct it. It’s pretty clear to me that our tradition thinks that the ways that Jews are meant to converse about ultimate meaning, with or without God in the conversation, that’s your choice, is in this strange language that we call Torah. 

Torah is the language, the discourse, if you prefer the vocabulary, the syntax, whatever, that we Jews use to talk about values and meaning. Now there are actually alternatives. Some Jews have done and continue to do something called systematic theology. Though my bias is to believe that some of the categories and the frameworks of systematic theology are originally and maybe irredeemably Christian. 

And maybe sometimes Jews get a little embarrassed by the lovable crudeness of the stuff that we call Torah, that we wish we were doing something that sounded a little different, a little cleaner, a little loftier. Because Torah, and especially Talmud, which for so many Jews is at the heart of Torah, is crude and it’s messy and it’s anything but systematic. 

And it seems on its face so much more about humans than it is about God, if such a distinction even makes sense. There’s, after all, no tractate of Talmud called God, but there is one called the menstruant. And the whole thing feels like a conversation that you might have accidentally stepped into, a conversation… that simultaneously invites you to be a conversant, while reminding you it’s been going on long before you arrived, and it’ll probably continue long after you’re gone. 

Most of the Talmud is written by and about people from thousands of years ago. The Talmud makes no pretense like the Bible does to say that it was actually written by God. And it still, astonishingly, even written a long time ago, operates in the present tense. You can’t quite tell, working through its hundreds of pages. where it begins and where it ends, which parts of it are supposed to matter, for lack of a better word, more than others. 

And it doesn’t really matter if you’ve read something before or if you know it by heart already, as one of the sages, Ben Bagbag, says, you still turn it over and you turn it over because everything, apparently, is in it. 

Maybe that’s what revelation is about, that our holy books give us this portal into a loud, disorganized block or body of wisdom with human fingerprints all over it from our ancestors and our peers, with room for the contributions of our descendants that are visible to us as well while we’re doing it. 

And once you enter the books, and I don’t just mean opening them, but when you really enter them, you get to be in the conversation. And there’ll be pearls of wisdom, little moments that feel like truth. And it’ll be okay that sometimes those moments pass by quickly because even the messy and murky times will find their ways of being rewarding. Maybe revelation is what emerges from all of this study that comes out of a lifetime of commitment to it. Maybe revelation isn’t episodic, a once-in-five millennia event celebrated annually on the calendar. Maybe it’s just the sum total of little glimpses. 

So we’re going to talk more about Revelation and Torah this year, preparing for Shavuot. And as a means of introducing my guest, I want to tell you something about how you know who your people are in the world. 

So let’s say you’re at a fancy and important place, I don’t know, for instance, like the White House Chanukah party, which you get invited to because you are a fancy and important American Jew, but you don’t really love hobnobbing or politics, and ultimately you’re kind of a shy person, and you’re still not totally sure how a doctorate in Talmud somehow made you eligible or qualified to be among the powerful elites in these halls of power. 

And then you see a friend, a teacher you’ve long admired, who’s maybe also wondering a little bit why they’re also at the party, even though, like you, they feel honored, a little bit starry-eyed, and you quietly go over and say, hey, do you wanna hear about this amazing little bit of Talmud that I’ve been studying? And they light up, and for five minutes, you get to drown out the speeches and the networking for a short little brief holy time talking through the story and the text and its implications. 

Moments like that remind you of how the rabbis in the Talmud themselves imagined that when the great sages would teach the forbidden mystical secrets, the trees would dance around them, and the world would momentarily feel all the flame because such is the power of Torah, the momentary feeling of revelation we get brief access to once in a rare while. And then when you’re finished talking, you can both giggle with a little bit of relief and go back to the party. 

Let’s say, you know that those are your people. And folks, those of you who are listening, people like us walk among you. I think all of you teachers of Torah know what I’m talking about. And since that moment, I’ve so wanted to have Rabbi Benay Lappe back on this podcast. Benay was my guest now almost three years ago talking about her pioneering work at SVARA, the yeshiva that she founded in Chicago 20 years ago. 

But what I really wanted to do is just learn Talmud with Benay. Benay’s Torah and her genius is rooted in applying queer theory to Talmud study and is doing what rabbis have done for generations, which is raising up a generation of passionate students who proliferate Torah into the world for the world’s improvement and for their own. 

So, Benay, first of all, thanks for being back on this podcast. So, for our conversation today on Torah study and revelation, I’m going to introduce a subversive and heretical hypothesis, and we’ll learn a little bit about it in the moment. But first, maybe just start off with, I gave you my take on Revelation and how I’m thinking about it now and how I see it happening. And I would be curious to hear how you see it happening at the times that you’re fortunate to merit it in your learning and in your classrooms.

Benay: Oh my goodness. First of all, it’s such a joy to talk Talmud with you again. And that moment at the White House will always be the high point of a high point in my life. And that it meant that to you as well is really such an honor. 

You know what? When you talk about Revelation, what jumps out at me is what you were saying about entering the conversation when you learn Talmud. And that jumps out at me in connection to Revelation because before I went to rabbinical school, even though I was raised Jewishly and had a very strong sense of myself as a Jew, I was a devout Buddhist and on my way to being a monk. 

And it was my sense that now I was actively rejecting Judaism, which forced me into a six-year experiment. I thought, OK, I’m going to give this six years. I’m going to go to rabbinical school, the place where I think people who know most about Judaism go to learn that. And I’ll see if Judaism is really my path to God. And I fully expected that experience of God I felt, sitting cross-legged in meditation, what happened for me in prayer. 

And it didn’t. In fact, though, it happened in the Beit Midrash. It happened when I was learning Talmud. And I thought, oh, oh, this is it. This is the spiritual practice that we’ve developed to experience God. And what’s astonishing to me is that we’ve guarded it. We’ve sort of limited access to it to about 1% of our people. And what’s astonishing is that we’ve done as well as we have, until now, with just 1%. 

You know, mostly guys, straight guys, cis straight guys who believe a certain thing and behave a certain way. And now I think the gig is to bring it to the other 99%. And that what happens to how we understand what Revelation is when the 99% get their hands on the tradition, I think is gonna blow out of the water what we thought was Revelation up until now.

Yehuda: It’s a powerful example because what you’re describing is that you were going and searching for, you were searching for revelation and therefore it seemed that the crustiness of Judaism compared to the kind of direct unmediated axis that other traditions seem to talk about that are much more comfortable talking about theology, is actually it can be a little bit of a mask because spiritual experience is generated through something and sometimes the mediation looks totally unlike what you think it’s going to look like. 

So instead of just talking about God, it’s actually, being in these texts invites you into something that feels totally different than you expect. I’m curious though, the protection thing, and then we will learn Gemara together, but that protection thing,

Benay: Yeah.

Yehuda: It was guarded, it was only available to the 1% less, fewer, fewer than 1% for sure. I imagine that a lot of people throughout Jewish history, a lot of those guys protecting this tradition did so because they actually knew it was fire, and they were scared that it would become wildfire. They were scared that if they opened up the protection around that fire, it would get extinguished or it would burn people. And I suspect that you’re not worried about that. Tell me why.

Benay: Yeah, I think that protection was about a deep sense of mistrust in the everyday person. As much as I love the rabbis, I don’t love the fact that they didn’t have a lot of respect for Amcha, the everyday person. And I do. And I actually think they came up with the idea that I extend to everyone, they thought applied only to a few people. It’s sort of like liberty. Liberty is a good idea and it’s an even better idea when everybody gets to play. 

So they came up with this idea of Svara, this inner God access that they thought only a small number of people, theoretically everyone, but you need it to be very, very deeply involved in learning to get. And I think that’s right, but I think a whole lot of people I can trust to do that learning, to refine that inner voice and access to God. And not only do I trust a lot of people, the people I trust most are the people on the margins.

They’re the ones whose life experience having been othered just like Jews, generally, have given them the insight into what’s missing, what’s broken, what has been ignored by the center. So I’m particularly interested in entrusting of those people who are most marginalized.

Yehuda: Yeah, I don’t know, I mean my life’s work is a little bit different than yours. I suppose I would say to me it’s not dafka those on the margins as opposed to those on the inside, but I just feel that anyone who steps forward and who wants to make a kinyan Torah who’s doing what young pre-Rabbi Benay Lappe was doing and saying does this have meaning, because I’m searching for something big, should find access to it.

And that should be unmediated whether you’re at the margins or sitting in the center of Jewish life because even those in the center who are seeking oftentimes just don’t have the avenues or vehicles. Or they’re told this is not for you, this is for somebody else. And that’s how you generate a bigger elite.

Benay: I agree with you.

Yehuda: Do you ever get nervous with the fire of Torah that somebody’s going to just do bad stuff with it?

Benay: You know, I used to be nervous. I used to be nervous about myself. Like, oh my God, I’m gonna wreck this thing.

You know, what if I actually am successful? Or what I think of as success and it ends up destroying the whole thing. It’s like that childhood dream, that nightmare that lots of children have and I had, that you do something and it causes the whole world, I don’t know, maybe I’m the only one who had it. 

But I’ll never forget when I was in my first year of rabbinical school and I confessed this fear to one of my beloved teachers, Rabbi Danny Gordis, that I was going to, if I sort of had my way and did what I was imagining, I would end up destroying Judaism. And he said to me, Benay, you’re not that smart. And you’re not that powerful, so don’t worry about it.

Yehuda: Don’t worry about it. 

Benay: So that was very, very, very much a relief to me and empowering, I thought, that’s good to know. This whole thing is much bigger than me.

Yehuda: Yeah, that’s an ironic way of feeling empowered.

Benay: Yeah!

Yehuda: I remember once when I started teaching in the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, and I was pretty young, and you’re talking about young kids who are right at the inflection points of big life questions and decisions. 

And so the Talmud that I taught them was the four who enter the orchard, the Pardes story, because I find it the most human story in the Talmud of a person who comes to conclusions that force him into a place where he can’t be in the same place that he was before. And actually, the tragedy of the story is less to do with Alisha ben Abuya, known as Acher, and more to do with the people around him, figuring out what do we do with somebody who’s part of us and who makes different choices. I just find it to be so arresting and also inviting. 

And I taught it with teenagers and we wept, we wept together. And a friend of mine who was an Orthodox rabbi said, you can’t teach that. It’s too dangerous. He’s right in some sense. Like it is electric and dangerous that somebody would say, wait, there’s a heretic in the tradition? I guess that’s an option that’s available to me, but it almost feels like the danger is also the antidote. When a kid looks at this and is like, there’s a heretic in this tradition? And it’s like thrilling.

Benay: Yes, it’s essential so that now they can go, oh, so there’s a place for me. Because everyone thinks that they’re too much the heretic because they don’t eat the right things or go into the right buildings or belong to the right, and everyone thinks I’m the acher, I’m too other. 

And all of a sudden that danger, the power, which is dangerous, is available to everyone. And I think if we don’t give people access to all the controls, even the dangerous ones, we’re gonna be in more trouble than what people are gonna mess up.

Yehuda: Yeah, yeah, I guess it’s a way of saying the bigger danger to the Jewish people is that Torah be forgotten, than Torah gets misused. It’s a good way of saying it. 

Benay: That’s right. 

Yehuda: So for this conversation, I wanna play with a subversive and heretical hypothesis about Revelation, that our sages in the Talmud seem to be far more interested in how a relationship power human beings than they were in the kind of humility that would be engendered by the encounter with an omnipotent God, right? 

So unlike the Hebrew Bible God who, you know, stomps around and gets super mad, nostrils aflame, who consumes the scent of burning animal flesh, performs miracles, perpetrates plagues, that’s like Hebrew Bible God. The rabbinic God is something else, quiet, pensive, maybe a little bit old. Right, the aging of God seems evident in a lot of these stories, so I want to read some text with you and figure out what that means. 

So maybe we’ll start with this Gemara in Tractate Chagiga 5b.

Benay: Amazing. 

But first I want to say I love your idea. I think you’re definitely onto something when you point at the theological revolution that the rabbis created when they recast God. I think that was the beginning of their genius. And had they not done that, the whole party would have been over. You know, after the destruction of the second temple and I think locating the moment even more precisely at the Bar Kochba moment, when it was clear that a third temple wasn’t going to happen, they only had two choices: To keep this conception of an all-powerful God, which I think was just no longer believable, or give up.

And their genius was saying, was completely recasting the character of God in their play. Because they were stuck. They were stuck with the myth that they had invented of an all-powerful God. Oh no, what are we gonna do now?

Yehuda: Yeah. You know, what’s cool though is that they even show signs. They know, it’s only our inheritance of later medieval early modern and then modern plaque on Torah that makes us think that they, that that position is actually heretical because they actually, they show their own work. In the most important piece of Talmud, I think, for David Hartman in his teaching was Yoma 69B, in which the rabbis notice that when Moses describes God, Moses describes God as the great, the mighty, and the powerful, and then when Jeremiah describes God, he describes God as the great and mighty, but leaves out the word powerful, and then when Daniel describes God, says God is the great and won’t say the word mighty or powerful, and they explain that to say you cannot lie in the presence of God. 

So if you don’t experience God as being mighty and powerful, it’s actually heresy to describe God as something that God is not. They’re showing their work. They’re basically, that’s not about Jeremiah and Daniel, that’s about themselves. What they’re saying is, what’s the version of God that we can describe in the world based on the prism, the legitimacy of our own human experience? I think we’re supposed to read that and say, I think we as Jews are supposed to do the same thing.

Benay: I love that. And I think that message exists not only on that page of the Talmud or this other page of the Talmud, but every single page of the Talmud.

Yehuda: Yes, it’s throughout.

Benay: That is the message of the entire book.

Yehuda: Of the entire corpus. Yeah. 

Benay: The experience of the learner is to learn how to remythologize whatever needs to be re-mythologized, God, Torah, received tradition, that’s the curriculum.

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, this is good news for Torah study, complicated news for prayer, right? But we could cross that bridge in a little bit. All right, so let me read a little bit of Chagiga 5b. I’m gonna read it in English. You’ve got an actual Talmud sitting in front of you, so you may read along in Aramaic. We’re going to read and then we’re going to riff a little bit. 

So the Talmud is working off of a line in Jeremiah, which says, “If you will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret.” The word is bemistarim, for your pride. 

Rav Shmuel Bar-Inya says in the name of Rav, responding to this verse, “The Holy Blessed One has a place where God cries, and its name is mistarim. Rav Shmuel takes that position and takes the verse and says this isn’t like a metaphor, right, that there’s weeping. It’s actually, literally, God has a place where God cries and its name is Mistarim. It’s not in secret. It’s in secret. It’s in the place called secret. 

And what is the meaning of “for your pride?” So why is it that God seems to be crying? So there’s, first answer that Rav Shmuel Bar Yitzchak says, God cries due to the pride of the Jewish people, which was taken from them and given to the Gentile nations. Rav Shmuel Bar Nachmani says, however, God cries due to the pride of the kingdom of heaven, perhaps that the pride has been eroded. 

So first of all, walk us through this a little bit. Like, what do you think the rabbis are doing here? What’s the, there’s something a little bit absurd, right, about this verse rendered literally to mean that God is weeping. So how do you understand the move here by the rabbis?

Benay: Well, I think the rabbis have to create the God who cries with us. And that’s a big change in what kind of God we believe in. Because if God isn’t also a victim, if God isn’t also impotent, then God has chosen to punish us, and God has chosen to reject us. That’s the only choice we have. It’s the only conclusion we can make. And then the whole deal is off. There’s no way to continue being Jewish, there’s no way to continue being in relationship to God. You have been rejected. And I think the genius of the rabbis was letting God take the hit so that we could still stay in relationship.

Yehuda: What you mean by God takes the hit, it actually means God’s power takes a hit.

Benay: That’s right.

Yehuda: God’s intervention takes a hit. But this then conveys almost a declaration in this sense of God is actually not a player anymore. God is weeping with us, but God’s not a player anymore. That feels like it has huge ramifications for anyone who wants to continue to believe in an intervening, omnipotent God who participates in the destiny of the Jewish People.

Benay: Yeah, but you have to give that up in order to be a player. I think the move here is, and it’s even more explicit in other texts, that God is saying to us, you’re the player now. I’m gonna take a back seat. Sort of the, Yitz Greenberg’s idea of us becoming the senior partners in the relationship and God becoming the junior partner. This is God saying, you know what? We’re gonna change the game now. I’m not the one in charge, you are. And I love that and I know you’re gonna mess it up. You’re gonna make mistakes and that’s okay, don’t worry about it.

Yehuda: There’s another layer too, which is that the result is God’s extraction from this story doesn’t just empower human beings. The rabbis are also humanizing God, because to render God as a character who also weeps is to essentially not just take God out of the picture, but to kind of turn God into a passive sort of human being. What happens to a theology of awe and worship and amazement when God looks like the vulnerable one of us?

Benay: You know what I think it’s about? It’s what I’m trying to do when I call the rabbis queer. What I’m doing when I portray them as queer, and I don’t mean to comment on their gender or sexual orientation. What I mean to be saying, to queer folk primarily is, they’re like you, you’re like them. They were powerless, othered, marginal, fringy people just like you. 

So that powerless, marginalized, fringy otherness is actually an important ingredient because look what they did and that’s what you can do. You are like them, they are like you, and they were great and created this amazing tradition. Now it’s your turn to step into that positionality that they also had and create the next Judaism. 

So I think what’s happening here is the Jews who are now beleaguered, powerless, without a country, without a home, without a temple, they are now seeing that who they are is not a lost cause because God too is like them. So if God’s like me, I can be like God. And that’s ultimately an empowering realization and position. Does that make sense?

Yehuda: I mean, it kind of sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s not, is that the rabbis are respectively queering God in this story.

Benay: That’s right.

Yehuda: Rendering God as a relatable version of a deity that they can now speak to and connect to, even if there’s deep tragedy and pathos for the future of Jewish history of a God who’s not going to intervene. I’m willing to accept that trade because this is actually the God that I need. I need the God who, because I know God’s not coming, instead of worshiping and praying for a God to come intervene in my life when I know that God is not coming, which is a bold thing for a Jew to say, I would rather worship a God who’s powerless because it’s a God that’s relatable.

Benay: Right, because if I redeem this kind of God, I can redeem myself. I can be okay, and I can still stand in the power of this powerlessness to do something.

Yehuda: Okay, so here’s the trippier part of this text as we go on.

So then the rabbis ask, but is there crying before the Holy Blessed One? That’s a rabbinic parlance of not, I think they have too much humility to say, does God cry? They can’t quite say that. Is there crying even in God’s presence? Right? Didn’t Rav Papa say there is no sadness before the Holy Blessed One? Because of the verse that says honor and majesty are before God, strength and gladness are in God’s place.

Right, there’s a tension between a verse that God, and this illustrates it perfectly, God is associated with honor and majesty and strength and gladness. That’s a good Hebrew Bible God. Can God be connected to weeping, quiet weeping? And I love the answer. The answer is wild. 

This is not difficult. One text refers to the outer chambers, and the other text refers to the innermost chambers where God can cry in secret. It almost sounds as though the rabbis are still holding on to the notion, like those who want to continue to believe that God is associated with honor and majesty and gladness and strength, yes, God’s putting on a show.

But I have to generously grant God the ability to do what God really wants to do, which is to cry in secret.

Benay: Yeah, it’s the beginning of the methodology of the wink. It’s God embodying the appearance of one kind of message of the strength and the honor and majesty, when really what’s going on is God is very vulnerable and human, like us, and cries and weeps. And from this point on, this dual process of, we say this, but this is really what we’re doing. The sleight of hand, it becomes part of the remythologization. I’m not sure if I’ve got that word right, but right, the remythologizing to keep a majestic past that we can be proud of while also continually retrojecting our own powerlessness. I don’t know. 

Yehuda: I mean the costuming is just the thing that’s so wild to me.

Benay: Yeah.

Yehuda: It says God still puts on a good show for the world.

Benay: Yeah.

Yehuda: Let me do one last section of this, which is, we’ll skip over the next line, although it’s amazing, which is that it asks, doesn’t God cry in the outer chambers too? We have evidence, it seems, that God wept, as the book of Isaiah said, in the destruction of the temple, and the rabbis are like, yeah, well, of course, everybody weeps at the destruction of the temple. That’s like an obvious one. 

But then the piece that the text concludes with, or at least our excerpt will conclude with, is the rabbis taught, over three people does God weep every day, does the Holy Blessed One weep every day, about the person who is able to occupy themselves with the study of Torah and chooses not to, about a person who’s unable to occupy themselves with the study of Torah and nevertheless does it, and then the third, and over a leader who domineers over the community.

Benay: Oh my goodness, it’s so beautiful.

Yehuda: Yeah, say more.

Benay: Well, the first thing that comes to me is each is a different kind of crying. So the first one is the, oh my God, what a chaval, what a shame. Look, you’re missing so much. It’s heartbreaking, the cry of heartbreak. You could have this joy that comes with learning and discovery and experiencing me through Torah study and you don’t. And maybe God is even missing us in that. That’s the cry of heartbreak. 

And the second one is one who is unable to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does. It’s the crying you do when you’re so proud of your child. It’s,

Yehuda: This is the people on, I’m just in awe of the people on the, I think it’s the 722 Long Island Railroad car, which is the Daf Yomi car. Who like, they don’t really have time to do this, but every morning and every afternoon at the end of the day, a commuter car full of people studies Talmud because you have to, like, how will you not? 

But that’s even leisure time because you could be, you have time, you could be, work, doing work, you could be playing Candy Crush like a normal person, but people decided to do it, but the people who the text really has pride for are actually, I think, the poor. I think that’s who this is about. Those of us who can make a living from this, how fortunate are we? But people who can’t and who still nevertheless, by the tiny bit of fuel they have by their candle to study Torah when their bodies are tired and they, God’s kind of overwhelmed by the devotion.

Benay: Exactly, exactly.

Yehuda: And then this last one, the leader who dominates over the community?

Benay: Okay, let’s see, let’s see, let’s see what this, I don’t know what, that feels like an angry cry, a frustrating cry. It’s, I’m imagining a God whose hands are tied actually here because it’s the leader of the community who is portraying God and who is telling people what Torah is and lying to them or misleading them and oppressing them and God is like, oh my God.

Yehuda: Oh my god,

Benay: That’s the cry of anger and frustration. Look at what you’re doing in my name.

Yehuda: I like that. So it’s A, what you’re doing on my name. I think it might also be a way of suggesting I could be in charge, I, God, could be in charge, and I’m not. If I can restrain myself, why can’t you? Who are you people? 

You’re right, it’s a weird text because the first two are so parallel to each other. A person who can’t have a relationship with me but chooses to, and a person who could have a relationship with me but fails. And the third is a person who doesn’t notice that I’ve made choices here.

Benay: And who’s preventing other people from having relationship with me. I’ll never forget the realization that I had that actually allowed me to be back in the Jewish community which was the bad guy isn’t God in Torah. It’s the people who told me that God didn’t like me and that the Torah said I was an abomination. Once I could be angry at them, I could love God in Torah again.

Yehuda: That’s incredible. You’re blocking them from me.

Benay: Right.

Yehuda: And if I was able to exercise restraint, how is it that you, as you said in my name, right, enact a version of leadership in the world, it almost is to say idolatrous. Because if our responsibility is to imitate God, and God, therefore, in this text is a God of restraint, then human beings of hubris over others have rejected the responsibility to imitate God.

Benay: Yeah, and now that you bring up us imitating God, this theological insight that I think you’re onto is that for us to imitate God, we have to first make God imitate us. We have to first portray God as like us. Now it’s even, now it’s reachable, it’s attainable for me to be like God. If God is perfect and all-powerful, I can never be like God, so I’m gonna give up. But if God is actually fallible and not all that powerful and disappointed and disappointing and, I get that, I can be like that, that is me. Now I can be more like God.

Yehuda: You know, but I don’t talk about God a lot, and it’s mostly because,

Benay: I don’t either.

Yehuda: I know, I’m out of my lane. 

Because it makes me nervous that people who talk about God are Godifying themselves. That makes me really nervous a lot. But this has the equal risk, when the rabbis do render God into their own image, because that’s basically what’s happening here. or even in the other famous gemara which says, you know, you should follow after God with all your heart and all your might. 

And the rabbis ask, how could one follow God who is a consuming fire? And they say the things that God does, you should do. Like God visits the sick, and analogizes that when God visited Abraham after his circumcision, so you too visit the sick, which is a beautiful theology of human responsibility. If God can do all these things, you can do all these things. And when you realize, they’re doing is just telling you basically, be a good person, right? 

There is a risk in the reduction of God to human behavior that we also engage in a kind of idolatry. We make God into the image that we can tolerate and then we feel really good about ourselves because we’re the God people. Is there a way out of this? Like, either God being so lofty and so big that it turns into one form of idolatry or God becomes so intimate and small that- it comes out another or are we just stuck because we’re human beings and the narcissism?

Benay: I love that question. I think one possible answer is that if you’re always paying attention to who’s queerer than you, who’s more outside than you, who’s not yet in, who’s suffering is still yet to be appreciated, then there’s more to be done than you thought. And that stretches you to push beyond what you thought you needed to do to be like God.

Oh, I actually need to do more. I need to see others whom I’m not now seeing. You just have to always remember that you’re not there yet. You have to hold your truths very lightly and always be ready to go, oh, I thought I understood, but I don’t. I thought I saw whom I needed to see, but I didn’t.

Yehuda: Let’s do another Gemara?

Benay: Yeah, let’s.

Yehuda: Okay, so we’re gonna do Brachot 7a, and if we have time we’ll go back to 6a and b, which precedes this, but you can detach them, and I think it’s more fun to start with 7a. 

One of my favorite rabbinic stories, which is about an astonishing tale of a rabbi who encounters God, which you don’t really see in the Talmud all that much. You see rabbis imagining what must God be doing right now? In fact, a lot of the stories about rabbis and God happen through Elijah, right?

Benay: Right, I was just gonna say that. Yeah.

Yehuda: The rabbis are like, they want to know, they found Elijah. What was God doing at that time? Like, oh, God was cracking up, right?

Benay: Right.

Yehuda: But once in a while you get a little bit of an encounter with God, and it says as follows.

Benay: And I just want to say that any of those stories like this one, I think we’re also meant to be a little nervous about.

It’s a little bit like the Buddhist idea of, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. In other words, if you think you understand who the Buddha is or the fullness of truth, destroy it because you’re wrong.

Yehuda: Yeah, look who thinks he knows Elijah. 


That’s right. That’s right. 

Yehuda: Okay, so Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi, how do we know that God prays? The Holy Blessed One prays. Amazing rabbinic question. Nobody knows that. You made up the idea with the question.

Benay: That’s great.

Yehuda: And it’s, as it says, quoting from Isaiah, I will bring them to my holy mountain and make them joyful in the house of my prayer. This is a wonderful play on words. The verse doesn’t say the house of their prayer. It says the house of my prayer. Of course, we know syntactically that’s not what that means. It means the place where they pray to me. But the rabbis are like, nope, that’s proof that God prays, just like us. 

And then they ask the question, what is the prayer that God prays? Rabbi Zutra, the son of Tuvia, says in the name of Rav, may it be my will that my compassion conquers my anger and prevails over my other attributes, that I behave with my children with the attribute of compassion, and that I refrain from enforcing the full letter of the law with them.

Benay: Amazing. I love this. 

Yehuda: Talk about this prayer. What’s this prayer about?

Benay: What this brings up for me is a God who is so, I don’t know if the word is human, but who has our challenges. The God who’s every week dealing in therapy with having lost his temper again and really trying to get a handle on it. And his therapeutic work, his sort of psychological work, spiritual work, is that his compassion outweigh his anger and that he not lose it with us. And that’s God’s prayer. 

And you have to ask, it’s God’s prayer to whom? God’s prayer to himself? It’s, I don’t know, God’s prayer to the universe? God’s prayer to us? I’m not sure.

Yehuda: I read it a little bit differently. It’s less to me about the therapeutic work that God has to do, although you could do a good read and say God is so associated with anger and frustration that maybe this is the prayer God needs to say. 

I read it a little differently, which is this isn’t God’s prayer. This is what we really hope that God is doing. This is about us. We really wish that an omnipotent, omniscient God is sitting around and saying, how do I become more compassionate to the Jewish people?

Benay: You’re saying because we need God to be that. 

Yehuda: That’s what we want!

Benay: We’re hoping, we’re praying.

Yehuda: Definitely. Right?

It’s like kids hoping that their parents are thinking about them and really just wanna be compassionate toward them. 

And so when God’s praying, by the way, it’s not resolved, the question that’s implicit here is, to whom is God praying?

Benay: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying is, who’s God praying to?

Yehuda: But that might mean that the answer to that question is God is praying to us. I hope I can show up as my best self for those people. And what it tells us, we really want that that’s what God’s internal monologue is about.

Benay: I love that. And this reminds me of that text, I forget where it is, you probably know, where there’s a machloket in the Yeshiva Shel Ma’alah, right? God is engaging in Talmud study with those Rebbeim who have died and gone to heaven, and they don’t know the answer, and God has to consult with someone on earth to find out the right Halakha, you know the text I’m talking about.

Yehuda: Faintly.

Benay: So the way you’re interpreting this reminds me of that one because it, God needs us to solve the the halakhic problems. Maybe God needs us to answer God’s prayer. In other words we need a God who needs to be the kind of God we hope God is. I love that.

Yehuda: Yeah. God’s best self. All right, so I’ll finish the text, which is,



Yehuda: In relationship to this, it was taught in a Brita, in a different Tannaitic document, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who’s imagined by the rabbis as being one of the few characters who overlaps with the Second Temple period, a rabbi who’s a high priest. He says, once upon a time I entered to offer incense in the innermost sanctum. So this would have taken place on Yom Kippur. And I saw, “Acatriel Yah the Lord of Hosts,” right, multiple names for God, seated on a mighty and exalted throne. And he said to me, Yishmael, my son, bless me.” Man.

Benay: Wow.

Yehuda: I mean, that’s the whole thing here, right? Of you encounter God on a mighty and exalted throne and there’s something needy about the request.

Benay: Right? God needs us. What is this? What is, why does God need us to bless God? Is this, I don’t know, I don’t have an answer, but I’m wondering, is this us imagining because we’re now thinking of a God who needs us that we now have some kind of importance and agency and power that we didn’t realize we had. Now what can we do with that power?

I don’t know.

Yehuda: So anyway, he says to him, quoting the same verse, the same teaching from the earlier part of the Talmud, may it be your will that your compassion conquers your anger and prevails over your other attributes, that you behave with your children with the attribute of compassion and that you refrain from enforcing the full letter of the law. 

And God nodded to me with God’s head. “V’naenah li berosho.” That’s the end. And then the rabbis give this incredible conclusion, the lesson of this story, kamashma lan, that you should not take the prayer of a lay person lightly. So there is like a legal implication to this or an ethical implication, which is if God can ask for the prayer of a human and is happy with it, likes it, how are we supposed to listen for, as the people you mentioned earlier, those on the margins?

Benay: Right. You’re right, this is a statement of trust in the ordinary person. The Birkat Hediyot, this is the ordinary person. You were selling them short, don’t sell them short.

Yehuda: God can do it. And by the way, that means that by extension, as God is mighty and exalted, you are mighty and exalted.

Benay: Yes.

Yehuda: And as you are capable of deciding whether you are going to lord over others or be compassionate towards others, you need people in your world who remind you of the responsibilities of compassion. And if God can do it and then nod in approval when you’re told, you know, what kind of person are you if you’re incapable of doing that too?

Benay: Mmm, beautiful.

Yehuda: Alright, let’s do one last piece which is the previous page in this Gemara. 

And I’ll just say to our listeners, since Shavuot’s coming up, you know what we’ll try to do is just put this on a source sheet. And if people want to learn this on Shavuot night, you could do a lot worse. Maybe we’ll throw a couple of other pieces to Talmud. We’ll attach it to the show notes. People might be able to learn with this. 

So just earlier in the Talmud on the previous page, 6a, b, the similar version of the same question, Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said the name Rabbi Yitzchak, how do we know that God lays tefillin? This is even trippier. And the rabbis do a, I’m not going to do all of these pieces of text, but it suggests that God has a right arm. We know that God has a right arm. God’s arm does mighty things, right? The outstretched arm.

Benay: Right.

Yehuda: But I want to look just at the last piece because then they say, okay, fine, let’s say God wears Tefillin. What is it written on God’s Tefillin? What would be there, right? In our Tefillin, it says Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, here O Israel, your Lord, the Lord is one. 

These Tefillin of the Master of the World, what’s written to them? And the verse is, Mi Keamcha Yisrael Goy Echad Be’aretz. Who is like your people Israel, one nation in the land?

Benay: Okay, wait, I wanna back up here for a minute. So going back to Tefillin, so let’s get on the table that I think the idea of Tefillin is that it’s a technique, it’s a tool to remind us of what we forget, right?

To remind us of what’s important because we’re likely to forget it and it’s essential that we don’t forget it. And what is that? It’s that God’s there for us. That we have a relationship with this God. I think what’s a little difficult in light of what we’ve been talking about, about this God who now has become less powerful, is that the verses in the Tefillin are reassuring us that God is going to take care of us. And God is no longer so much taking care of us.

Yehuda: So, but the parallelism here is what I think is more powerful, which is we have this amuletic thing, which we wrap around our arms to say, God is our protector, and in some ways we are bound, literally, to the belief in God’s oneness. If God is wearing tefillin, and God is then binding God’s self to our oneness, to the Jewish people’s unity. 

In other words, there’s two unities that need to be established, God’s unity and the unity of the Jewish people. Our security in some sense psychologically comes from a commitment to God’s oneness, and God’s psychological security comes to a commitment to our oneness.

Benay: Beautiful. So we better take care of ourselves

Yehuda: Yeah.

Benay: And keep our, you know what, together, so that God can also be there for us, because if we let go of our end, that’s gonna be bad for God, and we need God, so

Yehuda: Yeah.

Benay: I love that.

Yehuda: It’s like, Professor Sarah Wolf of the seminary that I learned these texts a few years ago, she suggested that these two tefillins, they turn tefillins from like a thing that we do into walkie-talkies. 

Benay: Love it.

Yehuda: These are like the great walkie-talkies between God and the people of Israel, reminding ourselves of what we want the other to ultimately be. And it says, basically says this, the Holy Blessed One said to Israel, you have made a unique entity in the world and I will make you a unique entity in the world. Consequently, the Holy Blessed One is glorified through the glory of Israel whose praises are written in God’s tefillin, where our vision for each other is intertwined with each other.

Benay: Amazing, amazing, it’s beautiful.

Yehuda: Benay, what are you teaching on Shavuot? I’m sure that you’re either teaching or you have something that you’re planning to learn on Shavuot.

Benay: You know what, I just made a plan with one of my chavrutas, Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, and we are having so much fun digging into the Gemara in Yoma that Rambam used to develop his Hilchot Teshuva, his laws of teshuva. And we’re kind of getting inside Rambam’s process for what he left behind, what he took, what he changed. That’s what we’re learning. So we’re in Yoma 86B, something like that, trying to get underneath teshuva. That’s what we’re doing on Shavuos.

Yehuda: Benay, it was a joy to learn Torah with you today. Thank you so much for being back on the show and thanks to all of you for listening.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president for communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

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